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On the Silk Road to Kyrgyzstan

I was with the driver from hell, Jailan the Egyptian DCM who just simply does not understand basic physics, nor does she know anything about cars.

The morning started off nicely enough. I got up, had time to make coffee, feed the cats, unplug the TV, water the plants etc. It was a nice morning, fresh air, but with the looming sense of a hot day. No problem, I was going to Kyrgyzstan!

We congregated at a centrally located hotel and caravanned to the nearest border Kazakh point-- just 8 km or so from the city center--and made our way through the insane maze of pedestrians and cars. It was almost 8 AM and things were packed. But I was still in a good, relaxed mood, so I wasn't affected by the chaos. The Uzbek border officials were their usual selves so it took us (10 diplomats) over an hour just to cross to the Kazakh side, were we then passed through in just 30 minutes. You would think leaving a country you LIVE in as LEGAL residents would be easier than entering a foreign country...(We had an easier time crossing into Kyrgyzstan)

Then the fun started. We were four cars total, with the speed-demon kyrgyz in the lead car, followed by a Romanian crazy-man, us, and Hugo, the nice Dutchman bringing up the back in his safe, comfortable, ACed Land Cruiser. The road from the border of Uzbekistan to the border with Kyrgyzstan is about a 600 km stretch of mostly a one-lane highway with no median. And I won't even mention the state of repair of the pavement.

As we were being led by a speed demon, the entire caravan passed many cars and lorries along the way. There are ways to do this in a safe manner so that no one has heart palpitations. Jailan did not know how.

Jailan is, by self-admission, not a multi-tasker. She fixes on one thing and does it, unable to grasp the circumstances surrounding her. This translates into a dedicated worker (she is the Egyptian Consul, after all), but a horrible driver. Her main goal was to be as close as possible to the Romanian car. This means we followed behind at less than a car's length: it is a wonder we never hit them or had a stone thrown up into the windscreen. When passing, she stuck to the Romanian's car as if we were tied together, unaware that oncoming traffic made a double-pass dangerous.

In the defensive driving course I took before coming out here, the most salient point made was that if you focus on something with the intention of avoiding it, you will not. For example, there are numerous accounts of people ramming their cars into lone trees. The driver, seeing the tree and not wanting to hit it, focuses on it and steers the car straight to it. Jailan has this knack of intense focus. When there was ample passing room, she would focus on the oncoming vehicle and steer our car towards it, instead of steering the car to return into our lane.

The Nexia is a light vehicle (a model made by UZ-Daewoo, formerly owned by the South Koreans, now owned by the Uzbek government). With two women under 5'3", it didn't weigh much more. Not that this is an excuse, but it was a factor in why we had three near-spin-outs; that, and the badly worn tires. In her focused effort to stay as close behind the Romanian as possible, Jailan seldom bothered to slow down before going around bends in the road. It is a miracle that we did not slam into a bordering wall or an oncoming vehicle.

I tried to relax and focus on the scenery:
But there were maosoleums

... everywhere

I tried my best to give her helpful hints along the way, commenting that the Romanian was going so fast and was crazy, and it did not matter if a few cars got between us and the rest of the caravan. I even pointed out to her the poor state of her tires, showing her the crumbling rubber and bare marks, "This and excessive speed is why the car tends to spinout." She just had her car checked out with the mechanics in Tashkent, too. I dared to wonder what else they overlooked. I just kept lookingout of my lens, hoping it would distract me. It sort of helped.

At 1 AM we arrived at Lake Issyk-kul, checked in to our rooms and crashed.

The next morning I enjoyed a breakfast of kashi (rice porridge) and fresh raspberries (the coffee was, of course, Nescafe). I ate outside, near the water, and looked out onto an impressive backdrop: the Tian Shan mountain range. The Tian Shan stretches from China to Kyrgyzstan and is capped with glaciers and laden with lakes. Issyk-Kul is the largest of these, though perhaps the most polluted. The view was gorgeous and peaceful; what a change from Uzbekistan's western plains!

(Those are snow-capped mountains)

For lunch we went into a small town and ate fish. I won't touch Uzbek fish (they live in rivers full of agricultural pollutants and human waste.) so I was in heaven. After we saw something that made my drive from hell almost worth it: petroglyphs! The petroglyphs are for the most part drawn on south-eastern facing rocks. These rocks are in a huge moraine field (glacial-formed) at the foot of some mountains.

The next morning, I ate more raspberries and read on the beach. Around noon, we left to hike into a canyon. It was a bit touristy: as we drove up, young men with their pet hawks approached us and offered to have them photographed, for about 50 cents.

These are only six months old.

This is the claw of a 6 year old.

And then we ate. After our strenuous hike into the tourist-filled canyon, it was time for a stick-to-the ribs meal, Kyrgyz style. We drank conifer tea and fermented mare's milk. The former tasted like tea, not at all like sap. The fermented milk, a staple of nomadic culture, was tangy with an aftertaste of toast.

The rest of the trip was, thankfully, uneventful. Yes, the drive back was bad, but it wasn't as bad as the first leg of our journey. We made it to the kazak border at midnight and they let us through in 15 minutes (they opened the border up just for us.) The Uzbeks were more difficult. We crossed into the "neutral zone" and waited at the next gate for over 15 minutes for the Uzbek guard. He was just standing there, about 20 feet away, but didn't bother to come to us. Once we shouted at him to come over, he said "that gate is the Kazak's and I cant touch it."

So we moved it ourselves and inched our cars the whole five feet forward and again asked the guard to open the gate. He did and we drove to the checkpoint. We went through faster this time because the six officers who were woken to tend to us wanted to
go back to sleep, so they didnít bother writing down
every single stamp in our passports like they usually do
(well, they do at least for the Americans.)

Energy is the lifeblood of this region.


Next: To Tajikistan